Thursday, November 28, 1996

Magan's Memories of Levitstown from 'An Irish Boyhood'

Just a few miles from Athy on the road to Carlow stands the remains of Levitstown Mill. The tall crenellated building is of another age and of a time when the men from Levitstown worked long and exhausting hours at the Mill. It has been silent for many years standing sentinel like as it keeps it's lonely vigil over the Canal and the surrounding countryside.

Last week I came across William Magan's book of reminiscences entitled "An Irish Boyhood" in which the 88 year old Author born in Athlone, Co. Westmeath and educated in England recounts his early years in Ireland. Now living in Tonbridge in Kent, Magan as a young boy lived for some years from 1919 in the Mill House, Levitstown when his Father took up employment at Levitstown Mills on the invitation of Charlie Norton of Minch Norton and Co. He describes Levitstown as

"An altogether fascinating place, the Mill House was not very large but was big enough with a bit of a squeeze to accommodate the Family, a Father and Mother and five children, three indoor servants, a cook, kitchen maid and house maid and a governess for the younger children and there was a spare room for guests. There was a Dining room, a Drawing room, a Study and a School room for the younger children. In the back of the house were the kitchen premises - kitchen, pantry, larder, dairy and maids bedrooms. There was only one bathroom in the house and two lavatories, one of them outside.

........water for the house and the Mill was pumped out of the Canal by a Mechanical Ram. Water for drinking was brought daily in galvanised buckets from a well in a nearby field. We had a rose garden, flower garden and vegetable garden. All the outside work was done by one man, Paddy Whittaker. He did the gardening, looked after the animals, milked the cows, fetched the water from the well field and washed my Fathers car.

Norton & Co. decided to diversify at Levitstown at the time that we went there. Half the Mill continued to be used as a Malting -the other half was to be used to Manufacture Cattle Cake. The chief source of power for the manufacturing process was water. My father installed a water turbine near the Canal Lock, the source of its power being the difference in level between the Canal and the river which gave a strong flow of water to revolve the turbine blades at high speed. The principle purpose of the turbine was to run an electric generator. We therefore had something which in those days in country districts in Ireland albeit in a somewhat crude form, was an unusual luxury - electricity. .....

There being no radio or television and living a long way from places of entertainment such as Cinema's, we made our own amusements. Our doctor, Dr. John Kilbride who lived on the outskirts of the town of Athy, four miles to the north of us was a Pianist and he would sometimes come in the evenings and play duets with my Mother on her violin and there would be songs around the piano.

There were many splendid local characters. The Dooley Family lived in the Lock House and were traditionally the Lock Keepers. One of them Tom Dooley became the Foreman at the Mill. He was typical of the skilful, dextrous and ingenious people who were often to be found in Ireland. He himself largely installed all the new machinery in the Mill and when he decided to marry, he built a new house and did the whole of the construction with his own hands. He was tragically killed by a fall from his bicycle.

His relative Ned Dooley was a most attractive man. When I was not at home, he was my Father's boatman for fishing. He also worked in the Mill. He knew that I knew that he surreptitiously smoked a short pipe at work when no-one was looking and I never gave him away. Smoking was strictly forbidden and rightly so as the whole of the inside of the Mill, all the floors and partitions and the props and pillars holding up the floors were timber and as dry as matchwood. The building was indeed and most
unfortunately for such a beautiful old building burnt down but after our time at Levitstown.

....I cannot omit another local character, Biddy Nolan. The driveway to Levitstown House was I suppose a couple a hundred yards long. It was approached by a drawbridge over the Canal. In effect we lived on an Island. Across the drawbridge 50 yards or so onwards and at right angles to it ran the Athy/Carlow road and straight on across it the road to Kilkea. That area was known as "The Cross" - short for crossroads. There were some cottages there and in one of them lived Biddy Nolan who was our washer woman. She came up to the house I think a couple of times a week to do the washing and ironing. She was a most loveable person and as children, we adored her.

... Being a Protestant Family, we followed the conventions common at that time. We went to Matins on Sunday mornings either at the Church in Athy of which my Father was for a time a Church Warden or at the little Church at the gates of Kilkea Castle to which in fine weather, the Fitzgerald Lords and Ladies walked down the Castle Avenue".

The Author ends his fine book of reminiscence with the hope that the account of his boyhood is enough to suggest what life was like for a child of an old Irish Ascendency Family growing up in Ireland in the years immediately following World War I.

This is a book which will be of interest to people in Athy and especially those living in the shadow of Levitstown Mill.

Thursday, November 21, 1996

Maureen Clancy / Irish Music in Clancys

I had intended to write last week of Maureen Clancy, well loved patron of the famous hostelry in Leinster Street who recently passed away. Other commitments however conspired to divert my attention elsewhere so that it is only now that I can return to the subject. Let me first of all make a declaration of interest insofar as I made my first hesitant steps in pursuit of the delights of Eros in the company of a daughter of the hostelry at a time when the young daughter was pushing out the present proprietor Ger Clancy in an old fashioned baby pram. That as they say was in God's own time but I have fond memories from those days of both Maureen and her husband Jim who died 20 years ago.

Clancy's of Leinster Street and O'Brien's of Emily Square are the last of the old time grocery cum public houses which were once to be found in every street in Athy. As other premises were modernised or as someone has said "were demonised", the gentle atmosphere of another age was replaced by the slick but frantic ways of the 1990's and the mock bar fittings of the displaced era. It was only in Clancy's or O'Brien's that the loaf of bread and butter could be ordered for collection after you had slaked your thirst in the inner sanctum where only the male patrons were once to be found.

Since the death of her husband Jim in January 1976 Mrs. Clancy of the small porcelain-like figure presided over the business which prospered under her wise and generous direction. Over the years she had helped many people and Sr. Consillio speaks warmly of her generosity when the first Cuan Mhuire Centre was opened in outbuildings attached to the local Convent of Mercy. In time Clancy's became a favourite meeting place for many and it was in the small back room that the South Kildare Literary Group met for many years. Amongst those who were members of that group were Desmond Egan, now a renowned and internationally acclaimed poet and John MacKenna, a writer who has achieved enormous success to date with his works of fiction.

It is however the Thursday night gatherings of the traditional musicians in Clancy's back room for the past thirty years who have given Clancy's its unique position in Irish music circles. Twice in the last few weeks I have had occasion to bring overseas visitors to Clancy's Thursday night session and on each occasion the visitors have come away delighted and astonished at the quality and virtuosity of the music played there.

Sitting on bar stools in the back room the players and singers alike effortlessly but with enormous skill and talent put on a performance which enthrals their audience and allows one to luxuriate in the richness of our Irish musical culture. On the nights I attended the musicians included two uileann pipers, Toss Quinn and Seamus Byrne who are continuing a musical tradition which stretches back through Willie Clancy and Leo Rowsome to the legendary County Kildare piper William Kelly. After Kellys death a set of Uileann pipes which had been presented to him by King George IV were given to a Mrs. Bailey of Newtown Bert, Athy whose son Sam was also a famous piper. In September 1995 I wrote an article on St. Brigid's Pipe Band, Athy which was formed prior to World War I and I mentioned, amongst others, two members of that band, George Bailey of Oldcourt who later emigrated to Canada and John Bailey, Publican of Stanhope Street. I have often wondered whether these two men were related to Mrs. Bailey who once had possession of William Kellys famous pipes so many years ago.

To return to Clancy's back room other musicians at the Thursday night sessions included Tony Byrne, a fiddle player from Glencolumbkille in Co. Donegal who came to Athy in 1954 as Principal of Ballyadams National School. If that other Donegal man Tommy Peoples and Sean Keane of the Chieftains are regarded as master fiddlers in the Irish tradition, Tony Byrne is not far behind as he bows and fingers his Fiddle with an expressiveness which prompts a desire to hear more of his solo playing.

Jack Dowling of Kilgowan played the Button Accordion with gusto and the retired County Council Overseer now approaching the 10th year of his retirement also regaled the audience in Clancy's with renditions of his comical monologues. Monologues are also the speciality of Ger Moriarty who at 85 years of age is not quite the oldest performer in Clancy's. That honour falls to Ned Whelan, former banjo player who now joins in the sessions on his tin whistle. There are many other regulars including Conor Carroll, Niall Smyth and his wife Mary who as one would expect of a member of the extended Doody clan, has a nice singing voice. Martin Cooney, Banjo player extrordinaire and Dinny Langton are some of the others who regularly take part in what is one of the best Irish Music sessions in the area.

On the last night I was there, the musicians and audience stood for a minutes silence in honour of their patron Maureen Clancy who had passed away the previous week. How the sessions in Clancy's first started I cannot say but no doubt Mrs. Clancy's helpful efficient manner nurtured the quiet respectful pub atmosphere which each Thursday encouraged the Irish Traditional Musicians to give of their best. That the sessions continue so splendidly after 30 years is a fitting tribute to the good lady of the house who passed away a few short weeks ago.

Thursday, November 14, 1996

Fintan Brennan

In an article some time ago I made a passing reference to the late Fintan Brennan, a name unfamiliar to some, but one readily recognised by anyone whose memory stretches back at least a generation.

Like myself he was "a blow in" coming as he did from Monasterevin where he was born in 1885, the son of a farmer. At 14 years of age he was apprenticed to a butcher where he worked for nine months without pay in conditions which he later described as deplorable. Returning to work on his father's farm he remained there until March 1904 when he took up a shop apprenticeship with Denis Boland at Vicarstown. The pay was £10.00 per year all found with boots and clothing at cost. Later he transferred on promotion to Boland's premises at Cush, Kildangan, where Fintan's brother John Brennan was in charge.

When the Gaelic League established by Douglas Hyde spread throughout the country Fintan joined the Nurney branch where Stephen O'Brien and an old Kerry teacher named Dillon taught Irish. This was the first stirring of Irish Nationalism which would later lead to Fintan's involvement in the fight for independence and his imprisonment in an English jail.

In February 1910 Fintan gave up shop work and became a canal agent in Mountmellick which job he got with the assistance of P.J. Kilroy, then the Grand Canal agent in Athy. He spent four years in Mountmellick where he was an active member of the Fintan Lalor branch of the Gaelic League. He treasured to the end of his days a prize won in the Laois Ossory Feis of 1912 for which he was examined by Arthur Griffith who awarded him first place.

Fintan was next appointed canal agent in New Ross and it was there that he joined the Irish Volunteers. The Company of about 700 men drilled in Barretts Park, the local G.A.A. Grounds, and it was there one Sunday that the Company's officers put to the men the choice of following John Redmond. All but twenty of the Wexford men stayed with Redmond but Fintan Brennan was among the small band who left to form an I.R.A. brigade.

In December 1915 Fintan was transferred as canal agent to his home town of Monasterevin. He recalled the winter of 1916/1917 as one of the severest during his years on the canal. The frost which came in early December lasted throughout the month of January. The canal froze to a depth of several inches requiring a steel boat pulled by six horses and a motor to break up the ice and allow free passage through the water.

Fintan's brother Pat Brennan took part in the Easter Rebellion in 1916 as a member of the Bolands Mill Garrison under the command of Eamon de Valera. Fintan married Mary Malone in 1917 and continued his involvement in Republican affairs which did not go unnoticed by the local R.I.C. He was especially active during the 1918 General Election on behalf of the Republican Candidates for County Kildare.

On the 4th of April 1920 Fintan's son Tadhg was born on the same day that a one day National Strike was called in support of the I.R.A. hunger strikers in Mountjoy Jail. The main Cork/Dublin road was blocked by carts at Monasterevin preventing race goers from travelling to the Punchestown Races. The key to the canal drawbridge was taken up by the I.R.A. thereby ensuring that there was no traffic on the Grand Canal during the strike. Fintan subsequently addressed public meetings in Monasterevin, Nurney and Kildangan in support of the rail workers who were dismissed for participating in the strike. The following June he was appointed Chairman of the Parish Court established by the first Dail. The Courts were held in Fintan's rented house as were meetings of the local Volunteers of which he was Company Quarter Master. Staying with the Brennans during this time was Hugh McNally, a Clerk in Hibernian Bank and Captain of the local I.R.A. Towards the end of 1920 McNally was arrested and Brennan's home was raided. Luckily enough Fintan's wife had the foresight to hide McNally's revolver under their baby son Tadhg.

However other guns and arms hidden in outhouses were discovered leading to Fintan's immediate arrest. Captain McNally, Lt. E. Prendergast and Quarter Master Fintan Brennan, all of the Monasterevin Company I.R.A. were brought to the Curragh Camp and Court martialled. McNally got a ten year sentence, Brennan five years and Prendergast three years.

Fintan was later to write of the sixteen months he spent in jails in Mountjoy, Wormwood Scrubs in England and Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight, and his memories of those times were published in the Capuchin Annual in the 1960's.

Thursday, November 7, 1996

Houses at the Bleach

This weeks article is prompted by a note received from the well known antiquarian book dealer, P.J. Tynan of Courtwood Books, Vicarstown who sent me a cutting from the Irish Times of 17th July 1924. On the back of the cutting is a news report concerning the release of Eamon de Valera and Austin Stack from Arbour Hill Prison the previous night. However, it is the article headed "Athy Council Housing Scheme" with a photograph of a row of new houses which is of interest.

The photograph had me puzzled for a while until a little detective work discovered that the houses were those of the Bleach Houses before the Bleach Cottages, a row of small houses for ex-servicemen were built in 1925/6.

The newspaper article of July 1924 is of sufficient interest to quote in full :-

"Forming the first section of a larger scheme, the present Housing Scheme undertaken by the Athy Urban District Council is nearing completion.

It consists of eight houses. The type of dwellings, illustrated above, being at present carried out consists of living room, scullery, larder and fuel store on ground floor, and two bedrooms on first floor. The construction adopted is cavity brickwork, which gives the most weatherproof walls, with rooms warm in winter and cool in summer. The eaves course has a deep projection, with a view to protecting the upper portion of walls from weather.

All materials, as far as possible, are of Irish manufacture or made in Ireland. The bricks are manufactured in Athy, and, we understand, are also available for the Dublin market. The joinery throughout was made in the Athy workshops of the contractor and all labour employed is local.

The Architects for the scheme are Messrs. Donnelly, Moore, Keefe and Robinson, of 14 Lower Sackville Street, Dublin and the Contractors Messrs. D. and J. Carbery, Athy."

The eight houses when completed were only the second scheme of new Council houses built in Athy. The first such scheme built in 1913 consisted of nine houses in St. Michael's Terrace, six houses in St. Martin's Terrace and five houses in Meeting Lane.

In 1919 the local Urban Council had estimated the need for two hundred new Council houses in Athy and had sent their Solicitor, Mr. Kilbride, to the Treasury Office in London to pursue their demands for funding to build those houses. The political and military events in Ireland at the time did not help Athy's Application and the British Government were not to provide any further monies for the town following the 1913 Scheme. It was the Irish Free State Government which sanctioned the Bleach Housing Scheme, but even their limited resources did not permit any more funding to be made available to the local Council for further housing during the rest of that decade.

The Urban District Council had originally advertised on 24th March, 1923 for tenders for six houses at The Bleach. The Town Clerk at the time was J.A. Lawler and the Chairman was Michael Malone, or as he was better known "Crutch” Malone, Author of "The Annals of Athy". It is interesting to note that at the time the tenders were being sought the Council's total expenditure for twelve months was £4,907.00, of which £1,457.00 represented the County Council demand. This gave a consolidated town rate of eight shillings in the pound compared to the present rate of approximately £35.00 in the pound.

Quotations for the six houses at the Bleach were originally submitted by D. and J. Carbery of Athy, J.F. Keating & Sons of Dublin and Watchorn & Sons, Builders of Crumlin, Dublin. Watchorns sought to revise their quotation after the closing date, and correspondence between the Housing Department in Dublin and Athy Urban District Council resulted in fresh tenders being obtained from Carberys and Keating. D. and J. Carbery, the local builders, revised their original tender downwards provided eight houses were built, indicating that the savings they were offering to the Council resulted from their proposed use of "concrete instead of brick in party walls, chimney breasts and partitions". The Council pressed the Housing Department for approval for the eight houses, which approval was subsequently granted and the tender of D. and J. Carbery, Buildings and Contractors, Athy was accepted.

The Council in the meantime had purchased land from Mrs. Lydia Guest of Hillview House as the site for the housing scheme and later sold part of that site for £75.00 to the Sailors and Soldiers Association in Dublin.

On completion of the housing scheme a total of nine applications were received for the eight houses, with rent payable from 1st May, 1924. The first tenants in the new houses at The Bleach were as follows :-

No. 1 - Joseph Carbery, Carpenter
No. 2 - D.S. Walsh, Commercial Traveller
No. 3 - Mrs. Lucy Cogan, Housekeeper
No. 4 - Patrick Shaughnessy, Bricklayer
No. 5 - Mrs. Kate Nolan, Housekeeper
No. 6 - John Logue, Malt House Worker
No. 7 - C.J. Supple, District Councillor
No. 8 - Thomas Moran, Tailor.

The row of eight Council houses built in 1924 were the subject of favourable comment by Nessa Roche, Architectural Historian who gave a lecture on the Buildings and the architecture of Athy in the Town Hall last week.